The term “masonry” refers to construction with stone. There is some dispute over the root of the word, but all of the candidates for the root are related to building with stone, such as the Latin maceria, which means “wall.” The term may be used to describe an entire building or a carved stone feature such as a headstone or bench. Someone who practices the art of masonry is called a stonemason or mason, and the skills of a mason tend to command high prices, since working in stone is very tricky.
When referring to a building, masonry describes the stonework which is incorporated into the building. One might say, for example, “the masonry in that building is quite distinctive,” Many old buildings were built entirely from stone, since it was a readily available construction material; many medieval cathedrals, for example, have stunning examples of masonry. Although stones can simply be piled on one another and anchored, most masonry is decorated with carvings to make it beautiful as well as functional.
Masonry incorporates several facets of engineering and physics, as stones must be carefully assembled to make a safe and solid building. Many ancient stone buildings illustrate incredible feats of architectural engineering, with vaulted arches which seem to stretch into the heavens and beautifully ornamented doorways, alcoves, and niches. Since stone is so heavy, correct placement and design is crucial, as imbalance can pull a whole structure down.
Carving in stone is very challenging because stone is such a hard and brittle material. Masons must carefully inspect each piece of stone that they work with, to ensure that it is suitable for their needs, and stone cannot be hurried. The next time you walk past a building with stone carving, take a close look and imagine using a hammer and chisel to carefully coax the carving from the stone. At each step, the mason is aware that an error will ruin the entire piece.
Masons typically train through apprenticeship with more experienced masons. The art is best learned through practice, with mentors showing apprentices how to use basic tools of the trade and how to assess rock for usefulness. Many masons in training experience immense frustration, as their errors may represent major setbacks in a project or a piece of art, but those who persist are rewarded for their labors with plentiful jobs and very appreciative customers.